December 30, 2010

Guest blogger: Jaime Kopke on the “Enchanted Palace” in London

For our parting post of 2010, I’m delighted to have Jaime Kopke as our guest blogger. Jaime founded the Denver Community Museum, a one-year pop-up experiment in community curation. She then spent a year in London earning a Master’s in curating contemporary design. Which gave her keen eyes for the new installation at Princess Di’s house...

Browsing through the comment book at the “Enchanted Palace,” an exhibit currently on show at Kensington Palace, I noticed two main sentiments: love and extreme dislike. I was in the former category, an enthusiastic fan.

“Enchanted Palace” is the Historic Royal Palaces’ answer to the challenges of a £12 million building renovation, one which has forced the closure of a large portion of the site. The exhibition will run through early 2012, when the rebuilding is complete.

Kensington Palace was the home to many of Britain’s famous princesses, including Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales. This exhibition tells the tales of seven of these royal inhabitants. Under the direction of the Cornwall-based theater company Wildworks, the building has been transformed into a magical, eerie, thoroughly fascinating space. Instead of following a linear timeline of the princesses’ lives, visitors encounter dramatic installations inspired by their stories. In each of the princesses’ rooms, historic artifacts are intertwined with contemporary artwork, handmade props, dramatic lighting and strange soundscapes. Drifting among the crowds are Wildworks’ storytellers, actors dressed in industrial-type gowns who engage — and sometimes bewilder — the audience.

Upon entering, visitors are given a hand-drawn map for the quest at hand: to discover the history behind each of the seven princesses. There are no labels on the walls to provide the answers. Instead, visitors are asked to explore one princess’s story at a time, to become enthralled, enamored, and in more cases than not, saddened by her touching tale. To help make the magic happen, the curators and Wildworks tapped into the talents of UK fashion designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones, William Tempest, Boudicca, and Aminaka Wilmont, and illustrator and set designer Echo Morgan. In the Room of Royal Sorrows, for example, a dress of tears created by Aminaka Wilmont is draped over the bed, marking the place where Mary II was unable to produce an heir. In a dark room nearby, a dress made of origami cranes hovers above an oversized bed, revealing Victoria’s childhood dreams of fleeing the palace.

It is this collaboration with contemporary designers and artists that helps make the show so successful. By creating a bridge to the present day, “Enchanted Palace” does more than liven up some dreary spaces; it evokes emotion and wonder. Museums partnering with artists is not a new concept, as Peter pointed out here recently. Increasingly, curators are giving over their spaces, programs and collections to artists for creative interventions. The result is usually an exciting new interpretation. ...

While I love the potential of these partnerships, I think it is vital that the institution remain the guiding voice. If museums are not bold enough to embark on creative interventions of their own, they should at least be there to direct the show. In the Enchanted Palace, Wildworks, the artists and the curatorial staff seemed to find a near perfect blend of whimsy, wonder, and history.

I did hear more than one visitor express dismay at the lack of labels and glass-enclosed objects. Given our preconditioned expectations of museums, “Enchanted Palace” is likely a shock to many traditionalists. In one of the grand reception rooms, a large cabinet of curiosities and artworks has been assembled to commemorate Queen Mary III’s and Caroline of Ansbach’s shared obsession with unusual objects. While the pieces themselves are captivating, the tie between the installation and its historical context is much more difficult to discover. Though I am always a fan of spectacle and wonder, in this case a few information panels linking the displays to their historical inspiration would have been both helpful and satisfying, given the diverse interests of the audience.

The lack of guidance carries over to the wayfinding strategy. While the playful map and wandering layout does make for a disorienting progression, a linear path is clearly not the objective of the show. The goal is to create an immersive experience where history comes alive through storytelling and contemporary interpretation. While I am sympathetic to the disgruntled history buff, it is obvious from the beginning that the “Enchanted Palace” is not going to be a typical museum experience. What the exhibit lacks in dates and facts, it more than makes up for by provoking curiosity and awe.

It’s rare that historical sites allow visitors to get lost in emotion and imagery. They are usually more concerned with presenting palpable objects and narratives in orderly displays than with creating vivid memories. At Kensington Palace, it’s not only the building that’s undergoing a metamorphosis; the audience is being transformed, as well. Visitors used to being passive onlookers bound by velvet ropes become active participants in the story. While this role may be uncomfortable for some, it pushes the boundaries of what historical sites can be and how they can create emotional and lasting connections with their audiences.


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